Having taught meditation now for nearly 5 years, I commonly get comments in my sessions with comments about practices that aren’t, strictly speaking, meditation. They will rave about the benefits of box breathing or mention that their therapist/coach/yoga teacher taught them 4-7-8 breathing and it changed their life. I always welcome these comments and express agreement with their efficacy, since getting into technical differences of the practices is not always beneficial.
Even so, questions like these have made me curious about the differences between pranayama and meditation. Because my experience with meditation has primarily been based on practices derived from Buddhism and yoga has never been my first love, I used pranayama very little in my own practice. This summer, I decided to change that and obtained a certification to teach pranayama to expand my knowledge on the subject.
In truth, there are distinct differences between meditation and pranayama and these differences matter. That is not to say, however, that the practices cannot be effectively combined. This blog post will explore the differences to give you context so that you can decide how best to use them both to support your own practice.
The first notable difference between pranayama and meditation is origin. This issue can be a little tricky, of course, since there are many types of pranayama and many types of meditation. The secular study of both yogic and Buddhist practices and concepts has also led to a the development of further practices that may intertwine some of these ideas further.
The first fundamental difference between meditation and pranayama is breath. Though meditation very commonly involves the breath, focus on the breath is not required for meditation. Practices like loving-kindness or body scan, for instance, don’t use the breath as a focal point and numerous other focal points (such as a mantra, candle flame, sounds, or mental images) can be used in place of the breath. Pranayama, on the other hand, is the practice of working with the breath.
A less obvious difference is that pranayama derives from yogic practices and most of the most popular forms of meditation (Vipassana, Zen, loving-kindness, tonglen, etc.) derive from Buddhist philosophy. This distinction may not matter so much for practitioners who just want relief or a good support, but the different origins shed light on the different focuses of the practices.
Clearly, different teachers and schools of thought can modify this idea, but yogic philosophy is much more concerned with clearing the mind while Buddhist meditation is more intended to make peace with the mind. Thus, Vipassana or Zen meditators are usually encouraged to observe the breath and allow the mind to calm on its own. With pranayama, however, the breath is used as a tool and often manipulated for the purpose of clearing the mind, balancing energy, and creating physical benefits.
Though there are differences between pranayama and meditation, they are not entirely distinct and need not always be kept separate. The first thing that pranayama and meditation share are the potential benefits. Because they both address the fundamentals of human life, both meditation and pranayama can result in mental and physical benefits. Done correctly, both practices can help the mind and body sync up and calm down.
For this very reason, both meditation and pranayama can be important and beneficial supports for individuals. They both deserve a place in a regular self-care regimen and they both can be used in the moment to maintain balance during difficult times. As one example, I really enjoy using alternate nostril breath during the day as a quick break to refresh myself and take a pause.
Another similarity is that pranayama and meditation go very nicely together. Yogic philosophy deems meditation as one of its eight limbs and so it is not uncommon for yoga classes to feature breath work and meditation. In the same way, many meditation teachers brought up in the Buddhist tradition (myself included) often incorporate pranayama into their guided meditation.
For instance, one way that I began experimenting with pranayama recently is to use it at the beginning of my meditation sessions as a way to quickly ground and relax myself. I have found ujayi breath to be a great tool for reconnecting with the breath due to its physical and auditory enhancements of the breath.
In short, pranayama and meditation are not the same. They have different origins and in many cases the purposes of the practices are distinct. Even so, they both have benefits for mental and physical health and they can complement each other nicely. Now that you understand how the practices are different but similar, the next step is to explore them both and determine what combination of practices work best for you.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.
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